Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bowl Preview: Part III

Part III of the illustrious bowl preview takes us through the New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and Sugar Bowl games. Enjoy.

AdvoCare V100 Bowl
Arizona vs Boston College
Line: Arizona -7.5
Boston College returns to the postseason after a two-year hiatus. The Eagles were bowl mainstays since the late-90's, first under Tom O'Brien and then under Jeff Jagodzinski, but the program wilted under the guidance of Frank Spaziani. In keeping their arcane tradition of hiring coaches who last names end in vowels, the Eagles tabbed Steve Addazio to be their next head coach. The Eagles improved by five wins in Addazio's first season on the sidelines and will seek to end a three-game bowl losing streak dating back to 2007. The Eagles were a scrappy bunch in 2013, giving Florida State their toughest test to date in a fourteen point home loss. They also played Clemson tough in Death Valley, surrendering just two offensive touchdowns to the high-powered Tigers. For the season, Boston College was glaringly average in the ACC ranking sixth in yards per play and seventh in yards per play allowed. The focal point of their offense was running back Andre Williams, a Heisman finalist, who enters bowl season leading the nation in rushing yards with 2102. He is the first player to have at least 2000 yards rushing since Donald Brown in 2008. The Eagles will tangle with an Arizona team that also features a star running back. After leading the nation in rushing last season, Ka'Deem Carey enters the postseason ranked sixth in rushing yards. Despite Carey's heroics, the Wildcats ranked just eighth in the powerful Pac-12 in yards per play. The primary reason for this was the play of the passing game. Quarterback B.J. Denker took nearly every snap and averaged just 6.3 yards per pass, ranking 91st in the metric among qualifying quarterbacks. Defensively, the Wildcats improved from their horrendous showing last season, but were just seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. The Pac-12 was a tremendous conference in 2013, but outside of their shocking upset of Oregon, the Wildcats only other league victories were against the dregs of the conference (Utah, Colorado, and Cal). Boston College is undervalued by the nation at-large despite the presence of a Heisman finalist. This line should be closer to a field goal rather than the touchdown spread it currently sits at. Look for Boston College to keep this one close and potentially pull off an outright upset.

Hyundai Sun Bowl
UCLA vs Virginia Tech
Line: UCLA -7
If the Arizona/Boston College game wasn't enough for you, the beautiful city of El Paso presents you with another ACC/Pac-12 clash. Very quietly, UCLA has won nine games for the second straight season under Jim Mora Jr. Currently ranked 17th in the AP Poll, the Bruins have a chance to finish the season ranked for the first time since 2005. Despite their impressive resume, when you peel back the onion, UCLA was not especially dominant in the Pac-12. Their offense, lead by quarterback Brett Hundley, ranked just seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play. Hundley averaged a robust 8.3 yards per pass, but took 34 sacks to somewhat offset his big play ability. Hundley didn't get much help in the backfield from the usual starting running back, but linebacker turned offensive star Myles Jack was explosive in limited playing time. Jack only carried the ball 37 times, but he averaged over seven yards per rush and scored seven touchdowns. Jack also intercepted a pass and recorded a handful of tackles for loss. In addition to Jack, linebacker Anthony Barr proved to be a big playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Barr recorded ten sacks and twenty tackles for loss in helping the Bruins rank fifth in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. Barr and Jack will attempt to stymie the gargantuan Logan Thomas who endured a very disappointing senior season at Virginia Tech. Over his junior and senior seasons, Thomas has thrown an incredible 29 interceptions and the Hokies have gone just 15-10 after losing more than four game just once since 1997. With Thomas struggling, the defense was its usual dominant self, ranking second in the ACC in yards per play allowed, behind only Florida State. Despite their struggles, Virginia Tech is no pushover. Outside of Alabama, all their losses came by a touchdown or fewer, and the Hokies did beat six bowl teams in 2013, including three on the road (East Carolina, Marshall, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pitt, and Miami). Like Boston College, Virginia Tech is a little undervalued. I expect this to be a typical Hokie game circa 2013; ugly and low-scoring. Take the Hokies to cover and don't be surprised with an outright upset.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Mississippi State vs Rice
Line: Mississippi State -7
With a season ending upset of rival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs from Mississippi State have qualified for their fourth consecutive bowl game, a new school record. Aside from that victory over the Rebels however, there isn't a great deal of heft on the Bulldogs resume. Their second best win is easily their one-point home escape over eventual MAC champ, Bowling Green. Their other conference wins came over Arkansas and Kentucky, a pair that managed a cumulative 0-16 mark in the SEC. In non-conference action, they also crushed Steve McNair's alma mater and Troy. In fact, their most impressive performance on the year is arguably their close loss to eventual SEC champion Auburn in the season's third week. In SEC play, Mississippi State was below average on both sides of the ball, ranking eighth in yards per play and ninth in yards per play allowed. The Bulldogs will be quarterbacked in the Liberty Bowl by sophomore Dak Prescott who actually led the team in rushing with 751 yards and eleven touchdowns. His passing was a little uneven as he threw as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns. The Bulldogs will look to improve to 3-1 in bowl games under Dan Mullen against a Rice team that just won their first outright conference title since 1957. The Owls won ten games for just the third time in school history, and the second time under coach David Bailiff. Rice opened their season playing an SEC team, where they lost, but kept the game somewhat competitive. They then knocked off Kansas for the second consecutive season, and after a tight loss to former conference mate Houston, reeled off nine wins in their final ten games. The Owls made a habit of winning the close ones in 2013, rolling up a 5-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Primarily thanks to their close game success, the Owls finished 7-1 in Conference USA despite middling yards per play numbers. They ranked just eighth in Conference USA in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. In fact, in league play, their most impressive performance did not come until the Conference USA Championship Game against Marshall. The Owls averaged over seven yards per play and held the explosive Marshall offense to under five yards per play in a seventeen point win. Senior quarterback Taylor McHargue completed just over half his passes, but threw 17 touchdowns and also rushed for nearly 500 yards. The offensive line did not do a great job protecting McHargue, as the Owls allowed 33 sacks (104th in the nation). The good news for Rice fans is that Mississippi State only accumulated sixteen sacks themselves over the course of the year, so McHargue has a better shot at avoiding negative plays. During his tenure at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has gone 12-1 versus IA teams from outside BCS conferences. However, against the better teams, those games have often been close (see Bowling Green this season and Louisiana Tech two years ago). Rice is a quality team and should be motivated to win their eleventh game of the season. Look for the Owls to keep this one close and cover here.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Texas A&M vs Duke
Line: Texas A&M -12
Coming off a season that saw them finish 11-2 and rank in the top-five of the final AP Poll for the first time since 1956 when a certain legendary gentleman was stalking the sidelines, the Aggies entered 2013 with great expectations. However, despite the exploits of the reigning Heisman winner, the Aggies defense went from bad to worse and the Aggies were just 4-4 in the SEC. To be fair, three of their losses came by a touchdown or less, but two of them also came in the comfy confines of College State where the Aggies played eight games this season. Ten of their twelve opponents scored at least 28 points against the Aggies lackluster defense. In the SEC, only Kentucky and Arkansas allowed more yards per play than the Aggies. The Aggies also did a poor job forcing turnovers, creating just nine in their eight SEC games. A defense that allows a lot of big plays and fails in creating turnovers will generally allow a great deal of points, and the Aggies were no exception, permitting 36.5 points per game in their league contests. And despite those defensive struggles, the Aggies head to Atlanta as huge favorites against a Duke team that, while not possessing the resume of a ten-win team, is clearly the best team Duke has fielded in ages. After losing their first two ACC games, the Blue Devils won their final eight regular season contests before falling to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. Amazingly, the Blue Devils won all four of their ACC road games, equaling their number of conference road wins in David Cutcliffe's first five seasons. Duke was a functionally average team in the ACC, ranking seventh in yards per play and ninth in yards per play allowed. Duke's biggest playmaker on offense is wide receiver Jamison Crowder who has nearly 1200 yards receiving. Crowder also returned two punts for touchdowns and corner DeVon Edwards added two kickoff return touchdowns, one of which provided the winning margin in their division clinching game against rival North Carolina. Edwards also ran two interceptions back against NC State, accounting for three touchdown in Duke's eighteen point win. In a season of roughly 1900 plays, Edwards' four big ones provided the thin margin by which Duke enjoyed a sublime season. Texas A&M is better than Duke, but double-digit favorites, especially when they are not elite teams, do not fare well against the spread in bowl season. Even if this game is relatively non-competitive, the Aggie defense will leave the backdoor wide open in this game. Take the Devils to cover, and don't be surprised if this one is a lot closer than most thought possible. Gator Bowl
Georgia vs Nebraska
Line: Georgia -9
This year's Gator Bowl presents us with a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl. An early back-and-forth affair turned into a relatively comfortable 45-31 win for Georgia. Despite the familiarity, this game will feature two different starting quarterbacks than the last matchup. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was injured in the season opener, and while he did play appear in four games, he missed the Cornhuskers last five contests and will not be playing in the bowl. Georgia's outstanding senior signal caller, Aaron Murray, was injured in their penultimate regular season game and missed the annual clash with Georgia Tech and is out for this game as well. In looking at Nebraska's Big 10 stats, we can get a pretty idea as to what kind of team they are without Martinez, as he played in only one conference game. The results, at least on offense, are not pretty. Nebraska ranked just ninth in the conference in yards per play. The quarterbacks behind Martinez, Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kelllogg III combined to throw just thirteen touchdowns and ten interceptions on the season. Plus, those two are far from the running threat Martinez was. Armstrong and Kellogg combined to rush for just 160 yards on 80 carries in 2013. In his illustrious Nebraska career, Martinez rushed for nearly 3000 yards and averaged over five yards per carry. The offense certainly missed him in his absence. However, the defense compensated for his loss. The Cornhuskers ranked second in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed. However, the vagaries of a short season manifested themselves in the inability of the defense to force turnovers. Nebraska forced just six in their eight conference games, easily the fewest in the league. A few more swing plays here or there and maybe Nebraska wins nine or ten games. On the other hand, evaluating Georgia is a little bit different since Aaron Murray played in all their SEC games. Murray and the Bulldogs own a pair of impressive wins, beating both South Carolina and LSU between the hedges. They also nearly beat eventual SEC champion Auburn (a common refrain in 2013) on the road before suffering a heartbreaking defeat. For the season, Georgia ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per play (remember a lot of powerful offenses resided in the SEC) and sixth in yards per play allowed. The Bulldogs allowed at least 30 points to six of their eight conference opponents, with low-wattage outfits Florida and Kentucky failing to get to that number. In their final regular season game against Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs fell behind early before quarterback Hutson Mason rallied them to an overtime win. Still, Georgia allowed over 30 points to the Yellow Jackets meaning eight of their eleven IA opponents went at least that high in 2013. I think the spread in this game is a little high considering the potential defensive issues at Georgia. Nebraska's defense is more than capable of holding Georgia in check and keeping this game close. I wouldn't bank on a Nebraska win, but a cover seems likely here.

Heart of Dallas Bowl
North Texas vs UNLV
Line: North Texas -6.5
This game is an unexpected treat for mid-major aficionados like myself. Getting the opportunity to play on New Year's Day, even if they are stuck on ESPNU, is something most in Denton and Las Vegas probably did not expect when the season began. For North Texas, this marks their first bowl appearance since 2004 when they finished their run of four consecutive New Orleans Bowl bids. After winning just thirteen games from 2005 through 2010, the Mean Green have won seventeen in just three seasons under Dan McCarney. After turning the Iowa State program around and guiding the Cyclones to five bowl appearances over a six season span, McCarney guided the Mean Green to the cusp of a conference title in his third season at the helm. North Texas lost just two Conference USA games all season, with the defeats coming by three and eight points. Meanwhile, each of their six league wins came by at least twelve points, including a win over eventual league champ Rice. On the year, North Texas ranked fifth in Conference USA in yards per play and outstanding second in yards per play allowed. In fact, their per-play margin ranked second in the league behind only Marshall. Offensively, the Mean Green were not explosive, but they also suffered few negative plays. They allowed only ten sacks on the season, an amount that ranked fifth in the nation. The Mean Green are a senior laden team, with their quarterback, running back, two leading receivers, and four leaders in tackles for loss all playing their final games on the January 1st. Seeking to win a bowl game for the first time since 2002, the Mean Green will face a UNLV team that has not been to the postseason since 2000, and has but three previous bowl appearances in its history. UNLV won a combined six games in Bobby Hauck's first three seasons in Sin City, but the Rebels shook off an ugly 0-2 start to win more than six games for just the second time in the last two decades. UNLV did what they had to do in 2013, namely beating six teams that did not finish with a winning record. To be fair, they did end the regular season with a beatdown of San Diego State, their lone win over a bowl team, to clinch this bowl appearance. UNLV was below average on both sides of the ball in Mountain West play, ranking ninth in yards per play and seventh in yards per play allowed. Despite the pedestrian showing, a few seniors did have good individual performances. Senior quarterback Caleb Herring three 22 touchdown passes after throwing just 14 in his first three years at the school. Senior running back Tim Cornett rushed for over 1200 yards for the second straight year, and set the school's career rushing mark, passing Mike Thomas. Both of these teams have been absent from the postseason for a while, so motivation should not be an issue. North Texas is probably the better team, but this spread is a little too high to feel comfortable taking them. Sit this one out and enjoy some mid-majors that get the New Year's spotlight.

Capital One Bowl
Wisconsin vs South Carolina
Line: Wisconsin -2
For the third straight year, South Carolina will take a New Year's trip to Florida, face a Big 10 team, and attempt to set/tie the school record for wins in a season with eleven. The Gamecocks have burst onto the national scene in recent years, and despite not playing in the SEC Championship Game during this run (they won a watered down SEC East in 2010), have enjoyed arguably the best seasons in school history back-to-back-to-back. South Carolina was not elite on either side of the ball in the SEC this year, ranking seventh in yards per play and fifth in yards per play allowed. However, since most SEC teams were very unbalanced with either a great offense and poor defense (see Texas A&M) or great defense and paleolithic offense (see Florida), the Gamecocks actually ranked fourth in yards per play differential. This will be the final game for the best quarterback in Gamecock history, Connor Shaw. Despite not getting nearly the attention he deserves nationally, Shaw quietly enjoyed one of the best touchdown to interception ratio seasons of all-time. Shaw threw 21 touchdown passes on the year (and also added five scores on the ground), but threw just a single interception. The four Heisman Trophy finalist quarterbacks combined to throw 36 interceptions! I'm not saying Shaw deserved an invite, but he should have at least been in the conversation. Joining Shaw in the backfield is sophomore running back Mike Davis. While potentially blasphemous to folks around Columbia, Davis posted better rushing numbers than Marcus Lattimore did in any season. And of course, on defense, the man with true SEC speed, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will be playing his final college game. The Gamecocks will face an imposing Wisconsin team that is not playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2009. The Badgers were probably a bit underrated for much of the year until their head-scratching home loss to Penn State to close the year. Overall, Wisconsin ranked second in the Big 10 in yards per play and fourth in yards per play allowed. Although they were an old school Big 10 team in that they loved to run the ball, this was not three yards and a cloud of dust. The Badgers finished second nationally in yards per rush (behind another Big 10 team in Ohio State) by averaging a robust 6.61 yards per carry. For the second time in four seasons, the Badgers had two backs go over 1000 yards on the ground. Melvin Gordon got fewer touches than James White, but averaged over eight yards per attempt. For his career, Gordon is averaging an absurd 8.31 yards per carry on 263 attempts. The Badgers can also sling it a little bit with Jared Abbrederis becoming to first Badger to go over 1000 yards receiving since Brandon Williams in 2005. This game has the potential to be one of the better clashes of bowl season. There is no value on either side of this spread, so just sit back and enjoy while you nurse that hangover.

Outback Bowl
LSU vs Iowa
Line: LSU -7
This Outback Bowl is a rematch of the Capital One Bowl from nearly a decade ago that featured one of the best endings in college football history.
Iowa rebounded from a rare losing campaign in 2012 to qualify for their eleventh bowl game in the past thirteen seasons. Iowa lost four games in 2013, but each loss came to a quality opponent. Northern Illinois nearly finished unbeaten, Michigan State and Ohio State lost just two games between them, and Wisconsin is one of the more underrated teams in the country. The Hawkeyes also own solid wins over Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska. Iowa ranked just seventh in the Big 10 in yards per play, but they boasted a very solid defense, ranking third in yards per play allowed. On offense, the Hawkeyes prefer to run the ball, ranking 94th in the nation in pass attempts per game. The Hawkeyes did not have a 1000-yard rusher, but they did have three players who gained at least 400 yards on the ground. Iowa's biggest playmaker on offense is receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Though he only gained 384 yards through the air, he also returned two punts for touchdowns in the same game. The Hawkeyes will take on an LSU team that flipped the script on their usual method for winning games. Typically, the Tigers are led by an elite defense and an inconsistent offense. However, this season, their offense was among the best in the SEC, ranking third in yards per play, while their defense regressed and was just seventh in yards per play allowed. Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw 22 touchdowns and averaged over ten yards per pass attempt. LSU offensive series seemed to follow this script: Short run on first down, short run or incomplete pass on second down, and a ridiculous throw and catch by Mettenberger to one of his stud wideouts (Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham Jr) on third and long. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Mettenberger tore his ACL in the Tiger's regular season finale against Arkansas. In his absence, the Tigers will turn to freshman Anthony Jennings, who engineered the fourth quarter comeback against Arkansas. How will the freshman perform against one of the better defenses in the Big 10? That should go a long way in determining the winner here. LSU is notorious for not covering the spread under Les Miles. I would be hesitant to back them here, but at the same time, Iowa feels like the type of team LSU can dominate with their fantastic receivers. Sit this one out and save your money for better options.

Rose Bowl
Stanford vs Michigan State
Line: Stanford -6
Like the Republican Party, the football gods seem to be trying to take the Rose Bowl back to a simpler, more conservative time. After a 2012 game that saw Wisconsin and Oregon combine for 83 points and over 1100 yards, the 2013 game saw 34 points scored and just over 600 yards gained. Traditionalists, rejoice! The 2014 game is likely to be another low-scoring, albeit entertaining affair. Michigan State finally broke through to claim their first Rose Bowl berth since 1987. Amazingly, in three of the past four seasons, the Spartans have lost one or fewer Big 10 games! Michigan State featured by far the best defense in the Big 10, ranking first in yards per play allowed. And after a rough start, the offense coalesced, and actually ranked fourth in the Big 10 in yards per play. The elite Spartan defense will be missing a key component however, as linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for a violation of team rules. While Bullough will be missed, the Spartans have a host of other playmakers on that side of the ball, including linebacker Denicos Allen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The Spartans will face a Stanford team that is pretty formidable in its own right. While the Cardinal did rank second in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (behind Oregon), they also ranked (a perhaps surprising) second in yards per play. The offense, led by quarterback Kevin Hogan averaged nine yards per pass (ninth nationally) on the rare times they threw the ball (only eight teams threw the ball fewer times). Defensively, linebacker Trent Murphy finished the regular season with fourteen sacks, a number that currently ranks second in the nation. Stanford is probably the better team, but this game, even with the absence of Bullough, feels like it could go either way. Take the Spartans to cover here.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Baylor vs Central Florida
Line: Baylor -16.5
Congrats are in order for both of these squads that are making their first ever BCS bowl appearances. Baylor won its first outright conference title since 1980 when a certain Samurai was patrolling the middle. The Bears got a great deal of publicity early in the season for their offensive prowess, and why not? They scored at least 70 points in three of their first four and four of their first six games. However, lest we forget, Baylor's offense has been pretty good for about four years now. It was the defensive improvement that caused the Bears to jump from top-twenty team to national player. After allowing 50 touchdowns in Big 12 play last season (that equals about five and a half per game), the Bears allowed just 28 in their Big 12 contests this season (a little more than three per game). The Bears also ranked second in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (of course they ranked first in yards per play). After averaging just over nineteen sacks per season in Art Brile's first five years on the Waco sideline, the Bears sacked opposing quarterbacks 31 times in 2013. The Bears will attempt to win twelve games for the first time in school history against a Central Florida team that has been living on the edge all season. While the Knights won eleven games and the inaugural American Athletic Conference title, they also pulled several Houdini acts. The Knights were 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and needed clutch fourth quarter play to beat four teams (Memphis, Temple, South Florida, and SMU) that finished a combined 12-36! Behind the play of future NFL quarterback Blake Bortles, the Knights ranked second in the American in yards per play. The defense, long a strength of George O'Leary's teams, ranked a respectable fourth in yards per play allowed. However, the Knights are probably the worst team to qualify for a BCS bowl this season. Previous warnings against double-digit favorites in the bowl season apply here, but this has all the makings of a Baylor blowout.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Alabama vs Oklahoma
Line: Alabama -15
If you only looked at the final records and the pedigree for this game, you might think this Sugar Bowl would be an instant classic. However, digging into how both teams achieved their respective records in 2013, you can see why the oddsmakers favor Alabama by such a large margin. We'll start with the Sooners who won at least ten games for the twelfth time in fifteen seasons under Bob Stoops. While the Sooners do own some impressive wins, including victories on the road at Notre Dame, at Kansas State, and at Oklahoma State, they were also crushed by Texas and Baylor, and narrowly escaped not ready for primetime outfits West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech at home. Overall, Oklahoma ranked fourth in the Big 12 in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. After enjoying the services of Landry Jones for four seasons, the Sooners struggled throwing the football in 2013, averaging just 6.6 yards per pass (tied for 89th in the nation). The Sooners will likely need to score a lot of point to hang with Alabama. The Crimson Tide actually led the SEC in yards per play as they averaged at least six yards per play against every league opponent except one (Mississippi State). Senior quarterback A.J. McCarron completed more than two thirds of his passes and threw 26 touchdowns on the year. Running back T.J. Yeldon rushed for nearly 1200 yards and averaged over six yards per carry. This Alabama team was not quite as dominant as the two that immediately preceded it, but I think you can make a pretty credible argument that Alabama is the second best team in the country. Previous warnings about double-digit favorites apply here, but Alabama is truly an elite team and a blowout by the Tide would not shock me here.

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